David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
Review: 'Idomeneo' at Mostly Mozart Festival Seeks Converts
Friday, August 19, 2016 - 10:25 AM
Difficult as it is to imagine a Mozart opera in need of rehabilitation, Idomeneo — the composer's 12th, written at age 24 — has an increasing number of militant champions who claim that it would easily take its place in the composer's top pantheon if audiences listened to this first fully mature stage work closely. To that end, the Mostly Mozart Festival went to extra pains to import a Eurocentric cast led by the revisionist-minded Mozart specialist Rene Jacobs (his first local appearance in roughly a decade), with the Austria-based Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the original-instrument Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.
From note No. 1 the approach was bracing and emphatic in a semi-staged concert performance on Thursday at Alice Tully Hall, yet full of details both musical and psychological. Though Idomeneo thrives in certain operatic capitals, the British tradition has seemed a bit polite and American performances view the piece from a curious distance — especially in the face of Jacobs' bold wind-based orchestra colors. The Idomeneo litmus test is towards the end when the character Elettra goes mad amid romantic rejection. If the scene feels properly unhinged, it's usually in a musical blur of operatic posturing that's played mostly for effect. Here, with soprano Alex Penda (previously known as Alexandrina Pendatchanska), the scene was a clear, step-by-step descent into insane rage.
And? Was I finally converted?
Well, I've always been fascinated by this crossroads of 18th century tradition and Mozartean originality, which is quite unique but still more of a cul-de-sac rather than a step towards the perfection of his later Don Giovanni. Idomeneo shows a great, musical mind mastering and transforming that stately genre known as opera seria which one appreciates all the more thanks to the revival in recent years of Handel's works in the genre. So, yes, Idomeneo is an absolutely essential part of the composer's output.
The operatic floor plan has characters come from standard baroque plots, this one a variation on the Old Testament's Abraham and Isaac in which a powerful father is ordered to sacrifice his son, or the gods (this time Neptune) will start killing off the surrounding population. Characterization is assembled with mosaics of emotion — you mainly get one emotional state at a time rather than simultaneous intermingling — though Mozart also drew from French opera with lots of gray areas between recitatives and arias, enabled by an orchestra that maybe wasn't as aggressively theatrical as in later Mozart operas, but has an unusually active role in the narrative. But for all of the musical invention that the composer built on top of this floor plan with some truly marvelous ensemble passages, Mozart the dramatist is slow to emerge here, with many missed dramatic opportunities, often with words that speak of intense emotions and music that seems only vaguely aware of it.
That new/old crossroads quality has allowed Idomeneo to accommodate a huge variety of voices, from those who typically sing Mozart to Wagnerian sopranos for the role of Elettra (I once heard Hildegard Behrens blast her way through it). Also, the title role is one of the few leading Mozart roles written for tenor, and Luciano Pavarotti, surprisingly enough, made it his own. Jeremy Ovenden, who sang the role for Jacobs on Thursday, needed an upper range that bloomed with a more generous sound, as well as a more secure coloratura technique. Yet such complaints turned out to be minor with the kind of psychological depth he brought to the later scenes, avoiding stylized operatic anguish and going for something more genuine.
The knockout was Gaelle Arquez in the "trouser role" of Idamante (the song who would be sacrificed), her voice growing increasingly lush as the opera went on, coupled with a thoughtful characterization that was among the best I've ever heard. Not far behind was Sophie Karthauser, whose characterization of Ilia, with a kind of style and precision that comes from having sung much music from pre-Mozart generations. As Arbace (in whom other characters confide), Julien Behr was an Idomeneo in training — fine voice with depth to come.
In the many options offered by the variety of editions — Mozart revised this one more than perhaps any other opera — Jacobs spared the audience the ballet music in a reading of the score that otherwise had a clean, trim narrative and never left you asking why the opera takes periodic left turns in concessions to now-outmoded traditions. He's also known for some curiously extreme tempos that weren't in evidence on Thursday. It was a highly stimulating night. Wouldn't it be great if all of these performers actually lived here?